We All Suffer From Unaddressed Racial Stress and Trauma. Here’s How to Cope.
It’s not just people of color who are traumatized by racial injustice. A therapist invites everyone to consider how yoga can help balance an overwhelmed nervous system.
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In 2020, when I published my book about race-based stress and trauma, the country was in the midst of a pandemic, sharp political divisions, and a social reckoning around police brutality. Recent events, including the killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police and two mass shootings in Asian communities, prompted me to consider the ongoing impact of the experiences we continue to have.
What’s clear is that that living in a racially-charged climate affects us all. In October 2022, the American Psychological Association published the Stress in America Survey which found that 75 percent of Black adults reported the racial climate as a significant source of stress. But the percentages are high for other groups as well. For Latino adults, the number was 70 percent; for Asian adults, 69 percent; and for White adults, 56 percent. Everyone feels the effects.
Here, as a psychologist and yoga therapist, I offer some thoughts on the role yoga can play in helping us manage our stress and recover from trauma.
On the impact of recurring racial violence
Race-based traumatic stress is defined as any race-related event that causes emotional pain. It is ongoing, recurrent, and cumulative. What we’re seeing play out right now is an ongoing, recurrent, and cumulative experience of brutality, violence, injustice, and insensitivity associated with race. It not only affects the people who are directly impacted, it affects those who experience secondary trauma from observing and hearing about it. Secondary trauma can be as toxic as secondhand smoke.
On whether it’s more important to “witness” violence or avoid the potential emotional harm
If you know that watching something on television or on social media or listening to the radio or a podcast is going to throw you into a state of anxiety or depression, then you would be better off not watching or listening. You can be aware without watching. What I say to people is, “Judge for yourself.” Hopefully you know what you can manage emotionally. For people who feel like they need to bear witness—if they can do that without damaging themselves—I’m not in a position to judge that.
On normalizing difficult emotions
Finding yourself in a state of extreme anxiety or despair that you can’t pull yourself out of is different from being in a state of shock or anger. We are shocked because these events are shocking, angry because they provoke anger. All of these emotions are normal. But when your nervous system is overloaded to a point that it cannot process or digest what’s happening, it means you’re approaching trauma.
On processing trauma
We live in a culture that suffers from unacknowledged and unhealed trauma. Not just racial trauma; it includes everything that has been traumatic that has never healed, individually and collectively. It just piles on. It’s cumulative. That’s why you see a lot of people acting out. This includes people of every race and ethnicity. I recently read an op-ed written by a Taiwanese American who suggested that violence happens because the process of assimilating into a culture that has normalized violence creates an imbalance. It just builds and builds and builds until one day you blow up. We just don’t know when that may occur or what form it will take.
On the benefit of Restorative Yoga
When your nervous system is well-toned, regulated, and in balance, you can move back and forth between an activated nervous system (fight or flight) and a calm nervous system (rest and digest) as needed. There are times we need to mobilize and times we need to be still. Restorative Yoga helps tone your nervous system and brings it into balance, giving you the flexibility and discernment you need to choose when it is wiser to take action and when it is wiser to do nothing. When your nervous system is balanced, you are better able to navigate the stressful and traumatic events that you experience without acting out impulsively, freezing, or falling apart.
On how to practice emotional self-care
Turn off media–social media, television, podcasts, and radio. You need to rest your nervous system. Rest to give yourself an opportunity for recovery. Living in a culture that has normalized violence is exhausting. You must compensate for the energy that you’re using to live under this kind of stress. When you don’t you become overwhelmed, overloaded, and your system just can’t do the necessary processing that’s needed to recover. So listen to your body, pay attention to your needs, and make your health and well-being a priority. Above all, immerse yourself in loving relationships and caring communities.
See also: How Restorative Yoga Can Help Relieve the Stress of Racial Injustice
Gail Parker is a psychologist, a certified yoga therapist, and a yoga therapist educator. She has been a practitioner of yoga for 50 years. As a practicing psychotherapist of 40 years, she pioneered efforts to blend psychology, yoga, and meditation as effective self-care strategies that can enhance emotional balance, and contribute to overall health and well-being.